A few thoughts from the early aftermath of the 24-3 victory over Penn State:
Dont'a Hightower is still a great player, but he is clearly a very different player than the last time we saw him before the knee injury. He's noticeably bigger this year (regardless of his dismissal of a weight gain), and the mobility isn't near the same. He's still a great player against the run and he's arguably our best pass rusher, but he was a major liability tonight when matched up with tight ends and tailbacks in passing situations. We are using him as a defensive end quite a bit on passing downs, and I think much of that is out of necessity. Again, he is still a great player, but we will have to use him in a different way than we did in 2008 and 2009.
Greg McElroy had exactly the kind of performance we wanted him to have, given the situation. 16 of 24 for 229 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, no sacks, no fumbles. He was efficient in the passing game, he avoided the negative plays, he distributed the football multiple times to five different receivers, and he took advantage of what Penn State gave him. Given our running game and our offensive line, if he can consistently do that all season you'll never have to worry about another mid-season swoon, we'll light up the scoreboard every week.
Preston Dial reeled in another big reception for the second week in a row, and he looks to have supplanted Michael Williams as the top tight end. We are seeing much more three wide receiver sets this year, as opposed to two tight end sets, and that is resulting in less playing time for tight ends. It seems that Dial is seizing most of the playing time, with much of it coming at Williams' expense.
D.J Fluker played very well at right tackle. He was a mauler in the running game, and while we gave him very little, if any, help in passing game, he still did very well. It's interesting to watch him play because he clearly struggles to block speedy edge rushers, but he has such a long frame that he can force opposing defensive ends and linebackers to take such a wide angle to get from beyond his reach that they typically end up running by the quarterback, making it all a moot point. Consider the no-back drive early in the game a vote of confidence in Fluker by the coaching staff. All in all, a very encouraging performance for the Foley product.
As a whole the offensive line played very well. They plowed the road for the running game, didn't allow a single sack of McElroy on 24 passing attempts, and honestly didn't face much of a real challenge. After painfully watching our offensive lines be so consistently bad for so many years, I almost have to pinch myself during the games to believe this is actually real and that these guys are on our side.
The mystery of Josh Chapman was never explained. Nick Gentry played most of the night in his place -- and played fairly well, I must add -- and Alabama went with more four-man fronts. Chapman was presumably healthy and played a few snaps, but he was being held out for some reason or another. I have no clue. Hopefully something will clarify all of this today.
Ed Stinson played very well in place of the injured Courtney Upshaw. He led the defense in tackles and was a force most of the night, undoubtedly earning himself more playing time moving forward.
Random personnel notes: Alfred McCullough came into the game at left tackle when James Carpenter went out, Phelon Jones went into the game when DeMarcus Milliner went out, and Bryan Motley comes into the game as an extra lineman in short-yardage situations. In other words, McCullough is the back-up tackle, Motley is likely the back-up interior lineman, and Phelon is the fourth corner. Also, Will Lowery came onto the field as the deep safety in the dime package, while Mark Barron played the star position.
Tip of the houndstooth fedora to Cody Mandell, who logged three more good punts. The first two were of good distance with good hang time, and the final punt pinned the Penn State inside their own 10-yard line. For all of the worries over the punting game, few could have legitimately expected more out of Mandell.
Place-kicking, on the other hand, is still an adventure. Cade Foster yanked his sole field goal attempt badly wide left, and at this point it's hard to have any real confidence in us converting a field goal of any real length in a key situation.
The best thing about being in the SEC? You almost never have to deal with a Big Ten officiating crew. If this game would have been closer, someone would have broken a TV in rage.
It was nice to see Joe Paterno make the trip back to Tuscaloosa. Most may not realize it, but he was considered an old coach when he was last in Bryant-Denny Stadium twenty years ago, and when this series was postponed I do not think anyone legitimately expected him to still be on the sideline when the series reconvened. It's sad to say but when his time is done, the college football world will forever lose its final link to the era of Bear Bryant, Woody Hayes, and others. Truth be told, the only legitimate grievance that can be aired with Paterno is that his presence and demeanor starkly shows the shortcomings of most other coaches. He is truly the last of his kind, and every true college football fan ought to be saddened by that harsh reality.
All in all, no one should have any overly serious complaints with the end result tonight. The injuries were more than we had hoped, but nevertheless we beat up on a ranked Penn State team 24-3 in a game where we never in serious jeopardy of losing, and I've learned that you never piss and moan too much with an end result like that. By the same token, however, do not let the end result itself blind you from the fact that we are a team with quite a few flaws right now, and we've got a lot of progress to make in the coming weeks. Be happy with the win, but realize the shortcomings and the need for improvement.
- If there was one thing that separated Alabama from Penn State last night it was Trent Richardson. He dominated the Penn State defense and he was the lifeblood of the Alabama offensive attack. With the lone exception of the first touchdown drive where went no-back the entire drive, everything that we did went through Richardson in some capacity. And, while it gets little credit, Richardson is just as good of a receiver and a pass blocker as he is a runner. In hindsight, nabbing Richardson out of the Florida panhandle was arguably the single most important recruiting coup in the Nick Saban era. Without him on the Alabama sideline last night, it's an entirely different game.
- With all due respect to the Nittany Lions -- and I am admittedly fond of PSU -- they really did not impress me last night. They looked to be a solid team, but for the moment nothing much more than that. Evan Royster looked like a cog, the offensive line looked relatively weak, none of the skill position players really stood out, and Trent Richardson and our offensive line toyed with their front seven like a cat paws a ball of yarn. In the weeks leading up to this game I wrote that if we lost to Penn State we were likely in for a much longer season than most expected, and I still think that holds true. Penn State is a solid team who may have an outside chance of challenging Ohio State for the Big Ten championship, but I still believe that we have a few opponents on the schedule this year who will ultimately prove to be better than the Nittany Lions. No vitriol in that, just my honest take.
- Let no one say that the price of victory was not high last night. This was a physical game, and the injury toll showed that. James Carpenter went out with an ankle injury, DeMarcus Milliner went out with an apparent hamstring injury, and Chris Jordan looks to miss an extended period of time with a shoulder injury. The Injury Gods have not been kind to us this year.
- In hindsight, the game-changing play last night was the long and winding fumble and subsequent return by Robert Lester. While the officials ultimately rewarded that ball to Penn State, without the fumble the Nittany Lions have a first and goal inside the Alabama 10-yard line, trailing 14-0. Instead it was 1st and 10 PSU inside their own 5-yard line, and with a quick stop Alabama soon found itself leading 17-0. That fumble by Chaz Powell completely changed the flow of the entire game.
- Allowing only three points to Penn State is obviously the end result you hope for, but the actual defensive performance was not commensurate to the point tally on the final scoreboard. Penn State struggled to put points on the board, but they did move the football at times, and their lack of scoring has more to do with their inability to protect the football in the red zone than anything else (not to mention a key dropped pass on third down that would have given PSU another red zone opportunity). We played poorly enough defensively to give them several opportunities, but the Nittany Lions simply couldn't take advantage of them.
- Points notwithstanding, it was somewhat of a poor effort by the defense. We didn't let their running game go wild, but they did go over 130 yards and averaged over four yards per carry, so it was far from a dominating performance in the trenches. And that was the highlight of the night. Beyond that, we couldn't get stops in short-yardage situations, we tackled very poorly, the pass rush was often non-existent, the defensive backs struggled to cover in one-on-one situations, and we had a plethora of blown assignments. The final point tally was great, but the actual performance itself was much less so. Rest assured Nick Saban and Kirby Smart will have plenty to complain about in film review sessions. Don't kid yourselves about only allowing six points in two games, this unit is clearly a work in progress at the moment.
- The lack of a pass rush clearly has to be one of the biggest concerns we have moving forward. We knew we would have some issues on the back end, but to only have one sack after two games and 50 passing attempts by opposing quarterbacks, who were protected by bad offensive lines, is very disheartening. We did affect some passes tonight with pressure, of course, but you would have hoped for much more. The absence of Marcell Dareus and the ankle sprain to Courtney Upshaw certainly played a role in all of that, but everyone else needs to play better as we move forward instead of just expecting those two to be saviors. I'll be blunt, if we go to Fayetteville with the pass rush we've had the past two weeks, our offense better be prepared to score points in bunches.